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    Wall Street Journal: Coke Tries Facial-Recognition on Facebook

    The Wall Street Journal reports that Coke will be using facial-recognition technology on social-networking site Facebook. (After the jump, there is a discussion about facial-recognition tech in billboards and advertising.)

    Enter the Facial Profiler. The Profiler is a new Facebook application that lets members upload photos of themselves and match them with a similar-looking Facial Profiler user. The idea is that you can find your mirror image, just the way Coke has found its reflection in Coke Zero.

    The app, which launches today, has been soliciting submissions to build a database with enough photos to reach critical mass. Once a photo is uploaded, its features are analyzed and rated. Users can then vote on the results, which the developers hope will improve its ratings over time. The software is based on the same kind of technology used by law-enforcement agencies to locate individuals within large pools of people.

    But according to Alex Burnard, a creative director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the ad firm that worked with Coke, the app was modified so that it won’t give an exact match — so users don’t get paired with more images of themselves.

    Coke tells the Wall Street Journal that it is “aware of the potential privacy concerns that a facial-recognition app could raise” and the company “has been working with Facebook for months to ensure the app follows the site’s privacy rules.”

    This is not the first time facial-recognition technology has been used for marketing purposes, but often consumers don’t know the technology is being used. (The Coke application is up-front about its use.) Some companies are using billboards with cameras (and facial-recognition technology) to watch people watching ads in order to improve their marketing.

    Center for Democracy and Technology Staff Counsel Harley Geiger (a friend and colleague) has written about digital signage and consumer privacy. The digital signs log data such as gender, approximate age and how long someone looks at an advertisement. The data-gathering and surveillance practices raise substantial privacy questions. Geiger urges the industry to address these privacy questions now.

    A published privacy policy is an important move, but companies should take other steps as well. Consumers should be notified when digital signage units are using measurement and identification technologies. When faced with the question directly, however, in at least two separate instances, digital signage operators have refused to identify which particular units use facial recognition. This lack of transparency will bolster the view that audience measurement tools are invasive. Therefore, companies that attempt to conceal their practices are asking for trouble.

    Other privacy safeguards will have to depend on the particular technology, what consumer information the unit collects, and the context of its use. While an opt-out might be sufficient minimum protection for anonymous facial recognition data reported in aggregate, an opt-in is more appropriate for any technology that can identify unique individuals or their property, such as RFID or mobile marketing.

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